How can I identify the main ideas in a text?

For a step-by-step guide to Efficient Reading, see link at right.

The first thing is to know why you are reading a particular text – are you trying to get an overview of the text or are you looking for a particular point? What sorts of things are you looking for – issues, arguments, theoretical perspectives, or all of the above?

If you have to read the whole text, whether it’s a book or article, you should focus on a few key parts of the text. You could read the introductory and concluding parts of a book, chapter, article or even section of an article, as well as things like tables of contents and abstracts – and even the title! Make sure you understand all these before reading for detail. Many articles also have keywords listed somewhere near the beginning, often straight after the abstract – these will tell you what the author considers are the main ideas in the text.

Similarly, headings and subheadings will contain clues to the key ideas. Also, many writers use the opening sentence(s) of a paragraph to state the topic being developed and to relate it to the overall argument. Reading paragraph openings can help you understand the main points/ideas/issues or the outline of the argument in an extremely short time. Diagrams, figures and tables can also guide you to important information.

If your text has an index, this is of course useful for locating information you’ve already identified as important. But if you don’t yet know much about a topic, a quick look through the index to see which entries have the most page numbers next to them can also give you a sense of what the major issues in the text are.

To identify how ideas are related to one another, you should find out how the text is structured. Some texts have predictable structures (e.g. lab reports) and the various parts should be easy to identify. With critical, persuasive texts, it can be more difficult to identify the writer’s chosen structure. There are many possibilities - one commonly used structure to compare and contrast; another is to put forward one point of view, challenge and criticise it, and then propose a new point of view.

At a sentence level, you should pay particular attention to words and phrases which link ideas or mark transitions between them - such as however, in addition, because, if, on the other hand, etc. These give you vital information as to how the writer sees the relationships between ideas. You should also look for expressions which reveal the writer’s attitude – e.g. clearly, unfortunately, etc.

For more help on this topic, see the links on the right...